Tenn. GOP's Battle With UAW May Be Bellwether for Right to Work in South

Image: Tenn. GOP's Battle With UAW May Be Bellwether for Right to Work in South Employees at the Volkswagen plant in Chattanooga, Tenn.

Friday, 14 Feb 2014 08:05 AM

By Melanie Batley

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Employees at the Volkswagen AG auto plant in Chattanooga, Tenn., will finish voting Friday on whether to join the UAW union, and GOP leaders are determined not to let the union win without a fight.

According to The Washington Post, if a majority of Volkswagen's 1,570 hourly workers vote yes, it would be the first time in nearly 30 years of efforts that the UAW has successfully organized a plant for a foreign brand in the United States.

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"This is all about money for them. They feel like, if they can get up under the hood with a company in the South, then they can make progress in other places," Tennessee GOP Sen. Bob Corker, who has been defending his involvement in the union election, told The Post.

"There's no question that the UAW organizing there will have an effect on our community's ability to continue to recruit businesses."

Republican lawmakers are concerned the move is a ploy to extract more lucrative incentives in an environment where states are in fierce competition to retain jobs. There is also concern that a UAW presence could give Democrats a boost in elections for years to come.

President Barack Obama, speaking during a closed meeting with U.S. House of Representatives Democrats in Cambridge, Md., criticized the Republican efforts concerning the union vote, Reuters reportedciting a Democratic aide who heard the remarks.

Obama said everyone is in favor of the UAW representing Volkswagen workers except for local politicians who "are more concerned about German shareholders than American workers."

Earlier, Obama had spoken briefly to the Democrats about a range of issues while reporters were present. That was followed by the closed session when the president commented about the Volkswagen union vote, Reuters said.

Conservative groups, meanwhile, have poured money into a campaign to try to convince Volkswagen workers to vote against the UAW. The National Right to Work Legal Defense Foundation, for example, helped eight Volkswagen workers challenge union election procedures.

The Center for Worker Freedom has been handing out anti-union fliers to plant employees and erected 11 billboards around town with slogans such as, "Detroit: Brought to you by the UAW."

National labor leaders, however, are hoping the decision will be a landmark victory.

"This is enormously important for the labor movement as a whole," Damon Silvers, policy director at the AFL-CIO, told the Post. "The European transplants are a puzzle that the American labor movement has been trying to work out for decades, and the UAW seems to have figured it out."

The twist is that Volkswagen itself is behind the union effort, hoping it can replicate a German-style works council, which allows companies to exchange data with employees and work together to resolve issues. In other countries, the company has found the work council system to be a successful model of labor-management relations, according to the Post.

Some worry that the escalating tensions could ultimately lead to the company relocating, or, at the very least, redirecting some of its work to other plants. That could cost thousands of jobs, a prospect lawmakers want to avoid.

"What I'm trying to do is make sure the city continues the positive relationship with the company, so they will be more likely to pick this location as opposed to Mexico," Chattanooga Mayor Andy Berke, a Democrat, told the Post. "We never want to put politics ahead of jobs."

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